‘I am so sore,” Jeff Mortensen begins, a self-effacing laugh punctuating the words, before quickly relenting on his proclaimed anguish: “It’s been good.”
The wunderkid dancer—currently based in Los Angeles, but originally from Edmonton—is going through the somewhat painful practice of re-immersing himself in Ukrainian dance’s technical nuance. For Clara’s Dream, Shumka’s spin on The Nutcracker story, is full of technical brio and skillful precision. (This year, the esteemed folkloric dance company is filling out its cast with members of Citie Ballet’s dance corps, as well as Viter Ukrainian Folk Choir, and Ukraine’s own Virsky and Kyiv ballet companies.)
It’s far from Mortensen’s first time in a taxing folk-dance—he’s been doing this show for over a decade—but coming back each season marks a vivid, physical reminder of the style’s requirements.
“Ukrainian dance is about strong moves, sharp movement, in unison,” he notes. “So it visually pulls you in, just because of the symmetry of it. And then the moves themselves are so precise and strong, they’re full of a lot of dynamic energy.”
A child with a penchant for gymnastics, it was Mortensen’s aunt who pushed him towards traditional Ukranian dance—a part of his heritage on his mother’s side. At five years old, he started making treks to the Yellowbird Community Centre (“That was when there was literally no houses,” he recalls. “It was just fields and a community centre in the middle of a field”). Then it was on to St Basil’s, and, after performing at a Cheremosh dance festival, the nimble leap into Shumka’s internal school.
From there, Mortensen’s career vaulted onwards: the first year he was in the company proper, he toured the United States with Andrea Bocelli on his Home for the Holidays show. He hadn’t even left high school.
“I’d never really gone on a professional tour before,” he says. “My nickname was ‘Curious George.’ I’d never seen palm trees, so [laugh]. It was exciting. I was just curious about a lot of things: different cultures, different cities, how the cities operate. Not only that, but how the theatre world operates.”
Mortensen then spent a year in one of Cirque Du Soleil’s Vegas-based shows in a more actorly role, one that made use of his skill set, but not as rigorously. (In terms of physical requirements anyway, but it was two shows a day, five days a week). When he returned to Canada, a freshly minted television program called So You Think You Can Dance caught his eye.
“It was the first time I’d been exposed to urban styles of movement,” he recalls. “So many different styles of dance. That was something I was interested in. So You Think You Could Dance was clearly a platform to get that training—even though it was in front of a million people [laugh]. But, y’know, I don’t like to do anything without pressure.”
It paid off: Mortensen placed third in the show’s Canadian iteration, and now finds himself working both on and off stage: notably, he’s assistant choreographer on an upcoming Rocky Horror Picture Show remake (!). While his career’s let him explore myriad styles of dance, coming back to Clara’s Dream every year invigorates that formative, heritage-based part of his training again—and also reminds him of its difficulty, each time.
“I don’t Ukrainian dance very often anymore, so it’s definitely challenge,” he notes. “It is a very specialized skill set that is required of [those] dancers. Because you have to look the same as everyone else; you have to be strong; you have to be pulled up; and it’s quick. I have to kind-of re-jig myself back into the Ukrainian folklore.”
And how does he go about doing that?
“Lots of pierogi,” he laughs. “Pierogies and sour cream. That’s pretty much it.”
Tue, Dec 29 (7:30 pm);
Wed, Jan 30 (2 pm & 7:30 pm)
Jubilee Auditorium, $25 – $80